Does Autosteer Actually Deserve Credit For a 40% Reduction In Tesla Crashes?

Tesla’s high-flying image, which had been moving from strength to strength since early 2013, hit its biggest speed bump last year when its Autopilot semi-autonomous/Advanced Driver Assist System (ADAS) came under scrutiny in the wake of Joshua Brown’s death. Suddenly Tesla’s pioneering Autopilot system went from being one of the company’s key strengths to being a serious liability that raised troubling questions about the company’s safety culture. Tesla CEO Elon Musk tried to swat away these concerns with what proved to be a set of highly misleading statistics about Autopilot safety, but the issue was not laid to rest until NHTSA closed its investigation with a report that seemed to exonerate Autopilot as a safety risk. With a single sentence, NHTSA shut down the most dangerous PR problem in Tesla’s history:

The data show that the Tesla vehicles crash rate dropped by almost 40 percent after Autosteer installation.

Because NHTSA is the federal authority on automotive safety, with unparalleled resources to assess and investigate safety risks, this single sentence effectively shut down public concerns about Autopilot’s safety. In a terse statement on its company blog, Tesla noted

we appreciate the thoroughness of NHTSA’s report and its conclusion

But how thorough was NHTSA’s investigation, and how accurate was its conclusion? As it turns out, the questions around Autopilot’s safety may not be as settled as Tesla and NHTSA would have you believe.

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Elon Take The Wheel

tesla-elon-musk-picture courtesy Forbes

If Tesla Motors has a single greatest asset, it’s not a factory or battery chemistry but the immense public trust that its CEO Elon Musk inspires. Faith in Musk’s abilities and good intentions underlies Tesla’s, passionate fan base, perceived technology leadership and high-flying valuation, and excuses its multitude of shortcomings in quality and customer service. Nothing exemplifies the power of this faith like Tesla’s ability to convince the public to trust its Autopilot system to navigate them through a landscape that kills more than 30,000 Americans each year. So as the number of Autopilot-related crashes begins to pile up and Tesla belatedly reveals that one of its customers died while using the system, it’s not surprising that faith in Musk and Tesla is taking a hit.

In my latest post at The Daily Beast, I teamed up with Nick Lum to investigate why so many Tesla owners appear to believe that Autopilot is more capable than it actually is and our findings are deeply troubling. From the very first announcement Musk and Tesla have misrepresented Autopilot’s capabilities in hopes of maintaining Tesla’s image as Silicon Valley’s most high-tech auto play in the face of Google’s far more serious autonomous drive program. Now, even after the first fatal crash, they are trying to maintain misperceptions of Autopilot’s capabilities by touting junk statistics that purport to demonstrate an Autopilot safety record that is superior to the average human driver. As Nick and I discovered, the deeply disingenuous nature of Tesla’s representations erode Tesla and Musk’s credibility on a fundamental level: either they do not understand the auto safety data or they are intentionally misleading the public. Either way, they refuse to acknowledge that either incompetence or deception has created a situation that has put the public at risk and continue to stand by safety claims that don’t hold up to even the slightest critical analysis.

As it turns out, there’s almost no end to the ways in which Tesla and Musk’s claims about Autopilot safety fall apart under scrutiny. In addition to the analysis presented in The Daily Beast, here are a few more ways in which to think critically about Tesla’s Autopilot claims.

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